There was a time when the things a man wore under his outer clothing were white, shapeless, and woolly. Their sole purpose was to keep him warm. They were unseen and therefore their appearance was subordinate to their practical application.
Things have changed. The formerly blanched counters of the underwear departments are a blaze of colours and patterns. Mundane nouns like combs and underpants have given way to briefs, shorts, and, yes, slips – French slips, mini-slips, and see-through slips. A slip is apparently not something nice ladies wear any more, it is a handful of nylon cut into the smallest bikini that a man’s anatomy will allow and stretched round his hips like a “G” string.
The reason for the flowering of men’s undergarments is difficult to arrive at. There is the theory that current moral climate increases the possibility that his underwear is likely to be seen by a more varied range of acquaintances, and his ego demands that if he should be so lucky, paisley pants and a two-tone vest add a touch of class to the adventure.
A more plausible reason is that our comfortable, flapping underpants have been let down by foreigners. Those damned froggies have invaded the hosiery departments with neatly boxed fripperies whose brevity is compensated for by butch brand names like Hom and Eminence. So if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em: the men’s underwear counters of Marks and Spencer and British Home Stores are now the most colourful parts of the shops and countless back street makers-up are churning out those coloured singlets that every disco dandy is wearing.
Twelve years ago Terry Shaw and Alan Deeks started up a company called Mark Christian. Their speciality was novelty underwear which then, even for Soho, was catering for a small and rather peculiar market. Now their machine rooms are throbbing as machinists sew like mad to keep up with orders from such places as Japan, America, and the Persian Gulf. They are undercutting the French manufacturers by almost half and their only problem is the shortage of materials, which in view of the size of their garments is surprising.
At home the market has grown considerably since the men’s undies couturier became acceptable to suburbia. It seems that wives buy the most unsuitable creations for their husbands in much the same way as husbands buy frothy negligees for them at Christmas. Office managers get presents from the typing pool with slogans and motifs printed on them that are more suitable for the rugby dressing room.
A hosiery shop is the Strand which carries a large stock of the more startling designs is now finding that they are selling to a wide cross-section of “ordinary” men. So if the boss is one those who frown when you wear a red tie, you can secretly defy his conservatism by wearing the latest see-through mini-slip.
Top row: cotton/rayon “slips” with dice print, 75p (matching singlet not shown. £1) at Harrods Underwear Department. Nylon paisley print pants at Marks and Spencer, all stores. Cotton rib jockey sports briefs in coloured checks, 80p, at Harrods. Nylon briefs with unsealed banana print by Mark Christian, from a range of 40 designs, approximately 70p, at Milletts, Leeds; His and Hers. Southport; Kendal Milne, Manchester; other enquiries to 24a Berwick Street, London W1. Cotton jersey striped shorts. £5.90, at Biba, 124 Kensington High Street, London, W8.
Bottom row: navy/white Polyamide flower patterned pants by Hom, approximately £2, enquiries to RBE Associates, 3 Oakleigh Street, Chelsea, London. Cotton navy aertex pants by Hom, approximately £1.95. Polyamide pants with face design by Hom, approximately £2. Nylon briefs with “Hello Sailor” slogan by Mark Christian, approximately 70p. Multi-coloured striped pants. 65p, at Marks and Spencer, all stores.